Once the itching begins, we are quick to assume the obvious: yeast infection. Unfortunately, three out of four women are hit by this infection at least once in their lifetime. While this common, treatable fungal infection can cause some serious discomfort and agitation, there are some misconceptions about symptoms, treatments and prevention tactics.
Here is what you need to know
A vaginal yeast infection, also known as vaginal candidiasis, is a fungal infection that can cause discomfort, itchiness and discharge of the vagina and vulva (the external part of the female genitalia).
What can cause yeast infections?
The common infection occurs when the balance of normal bacteria and yeast is disrupted, causing yeast cells to multiply and kickstart symptoms. Risk factors for developing yeast infections include certain antibiotics (broad spectrum); a weakened immune system, uncontrolled diabetes; sexual activity; contraceptive devices such as IUDs, vaginal sponges and diaphragms; and anything that increases levels of estrogen in our bodies such as pregnancy, taking birth control pills and hormone replacement therapy.
So, what are the symptoms?
The symptoms of a yeast infection can vary from mild discomfort to severe irritation, which can only get worse without immediate care and treatment. Common symptoms include:
- General itchiness or irritation in the vagina and vulva – if severe, this could lead to tears, cracks and sores.
- Burning sensations while urinating (this could also occur during intercourse).
- Redness and swelling of the vulva and vagina.
- Thick, white clumpy vaginal discharge (could resemble cottage cheese).
- Watery vaginal discharge.
- Rash around the vagina.
However, similar symptoms can also occur in several other different types of vaginal infections and conditions. Sexually transmitted diseases (such as Trichomoniasis), bacterial vaginosis and skin conditions (such as eczema) can mimic yeast symptoms and can make self-diagnosis tricky.
How can you get your infection treated?
If you think that you have a yeast infection, it is best to visit your healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment. Whether it is your first infection or you’ve had similar symptoms before, providers are here to help! Self-diagnosis of yeast infections can be problematic and inaccurate and can lead to prolonged irritating symptoms because of delayed appropriate treatment.
You can make an appointment at any of Ochsner’s OB/GYN clinics or the Ochsner Baptist Women’s Walk-In Care in New Orleans, which specializes in treating this very infection and others that may resemble it.
In order to diagnose your symptoms, your provider may ask about your medical history (looking for any past vaginal infections or sexually transmitted infections), perform an examination of your vagina and vulva, and if indicated may take a sample of vaginal fluid for testing.
Once it is determined it is a yeast infection, your provider may recommend a topical anti-fungal treatment or an oral medication. However, if you are no stranger to yeast infections, a quick over-the-counter medication may be your first course of action. Medications found at the local drug store are typically effective for those who do not get yeast infections often and have mild symptoms. Common over-the-counter treatments can take three to seven days to relieve symptoms and are typically a cream or tablet inserted vaginally by an applicator.
If symptoms do not resolve or they return within a couple of months, make an appointment to see your provider again for evaluation and treatment recommendations.
If you are pregnant, it is safest to use vaginal creams to treat yeast infections, especially in the first trimester. A yeast infection will not harm the pregnancy, so don’t worry if you find you are getting more of these annoying infections when you are pregnant.
Also, your partner does not generally need treatment, and there is no need to delay sexual activity due to a yeast infection (although it may be more comfortable once the infection is treated).
What can you avoid to prevent a yeast infection?
Again, a yeast infection can occur from anything that might cause an imbalance of a vagina’s natural mix of bacteria and yeast. This could include specific antibiotics, pregnancy, a weakened immune system and more. But, there are some things you can do (or avoid) that can help prevent a yeast infection from striking.
- Maintain good hygiene. As in many cases, a good hygiene routine can help ensure that you are keeping out, or killing off, any disruptions that may cause an infection-leading imbalance.
- It is also recommended that you do not douche (the act of washing out the vagina) as it removes the normal infection-fighting bacteria.
- Wear loose-fitting underwear and pantyhose. Synthetic fabrics and tight pantyhose can cause heat and hold moisture. It is recommended to wear breathable, cotton underwear and loose-fitting pantyhose to avoid creating an environment where yeast thrives.
- Avoid scented feminine products. This includes scented bubble bath soups, sprays, pads and tampons. The scent can cause irritation to the sensitive area and disrupt the pH balance of the vagina.
- Limit the use of antibiotics, especially when not necessary. Antibiotics can cause an imbalance of natural vaginal flora (the bacteria inside the vagina). Let your provider know if you find that you consistently get yeast infections after taking antibiotics.
- Change into dry clothes as soon as you can. Staying in wet clothes, such as swimsuits and workout attire, for long periods of time can increase moisture build up, which also creates an environment for yeast to thrive.
- Maintain good glycemic control. It is important to maintain good glycemic control if you have a diagnosis of diabetes.
- Do not put yogurt in your vagina in attempt to “balance your pH”! Although yogurt does contain probiotics, placing it vaginally will not improve the normal flora of the vagina.
The bottom line
Yeast infections are common, and often treatable infections. However, letting your provider know about it can help prevent future infections and rule out any other potential cause for similar symptoms.
Learn more about Ochsner Women's Services.